July 15, 2016

Decision making tools should be used to make decisions

The problem with analytics….

So much is being made of the whole Subban-Weber trade fiasco for a number of reasons. One of which is the fact that someone apparently lost their job over this trade. The Montreal Canadiens decided not to renew the contract of an analytics guy, and so the numbers people on Hockey Twitter are all up in arms over this.

Long story short – according to the media the guy did his job, crunched the numbers, and reported his findings to his superior. The numbers were in favor of keeping Subban, of course. But since the numbers didn’t agree with the decision already made by upper management, his contract wasn’t renewed.

Now, this is hardly a new or surprising development – especially within the NHL. However, to be fair, things like this happen in corporate America all the time, too. And they’re equally thought of as stupid in much of corporate America as well.

The problem here is two-fold. One, on the analytics side of things, numbers people tend to think the final numbers produced are gospel. They are an absolute truth, and to not automatically go along with them is folly. So their threshold of what they consider appropriate in this situation is set absurdly high, and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The other side of the problem is general hockey thinking. Numbers do serve a purpose – they’re a good decision-making tool to help people decide upon aspects of the game that can be quantified. How people go about getting these numbers might be flawed, but that still doesn’t mean that the results shouldn’t be seriously considered.

But instead, so-called hockey people seem to focus on “intangibles” – which really ought to be renamed “unquantifiables”. And, quite frankly, most of them have little meaning when it comes to the sport. Being "gritty” doesn’t really mean a damned thing, if you stop to think about it. "Mental toughness", on the other hand, does and in a few different ways.

That’s not to say that those unquantifiables don’t exist or don’t have meaning. It's a fact that people perform better at things when they're happy than when they're unhappy, and while you can capture performance, it's difficult to capture mood along with performance. So sports psychology exists for a reason, after all. The thing is, there are few people who are running teams that are being particularly scientific about player assessment. Heck, some basic critical thinking might even be helpful, and they’re seemingly not doing much of that, either.

What it comes down to on the team management side of things for most teams is really that they like a guy, and they’re trying to justify why they like him. It has nothing to do with his “toughness” (in a physical-fighting sense) or his “grittiness”. It’s all about how they want a player, and they feel like they need to have a reason for why they want that player so that it doesn’t seem like it's an arbitrary decision – when it usually is.

So when general managers and coaches start saying words like that, they sound like they’re clueless about the player. They may be trying to sound intelligent and reasonable – and maybe within the sport itself they do – but to the general fan bases and media, they sound like they have no idea what they’re talking about. They come off as just a bunch of crotchety old men tossing around descriptive words to make them look like they know what they’re doing. Or something.

Now, I’m not a numbers person, so I know that some fancy stat isn’t going to be the end-all be-all of player evaluation. However, even I recognize that they’re useful if taken the right way. If you’re evaluating people, then you take whatever tools are available that make sense – or, you create ones of your own if none of the ones available do. And I’ve done that before in my own job.

The thing is, it’s literally my job to give and / or create decision-making tools so that upper management can better manage their assets. So I have some very specialized experience in this area of business – both with government as well as with private industry. And I’m here to tell you that the NHL does things in a very backward and outdated way. From the outside looking in, at least.

And now everyone but them is noticing that.

I’m not even going to get into the whole “yes-man” thing. An intelligent person surrounds themselves with people who have different perspectives that aren’t afraid to share them. The more views you have available to you, the better your decisions will be. Only someone who’s insecure and / or egotistical rejects opinions that contradict their own. I could go on – and on, and on – but that’s the gist of it.

If the NHL and its member teams were run like a real business – and without the rampant and blatant cronyism or the nepotism – they’d be raking in the money and be incredibly successful. They could easily compare to the NFL in many ways if they broke away from their crumbling so-called traditions, in fact. Doing things “as they’ve always been done” is simply a bad business model, no matter what industry you’re talking about.

Yes, hockey is still a business, but it’s really a very poorly run one by just about any standard in North America.

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